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MARIJUANA MOMENT

Top Vermont lawmaker says legal marijuana sales bill will be taken up after coronavirus response

Richard Vogel/Associated Press

Marijuana Moment is a wire service assembled by Tom Angell, a marijuana legalization activist and journalist covering marijuana reform nationwide. The views expressed by Angell or Marijuana Moment are neither endorsed by the Globe nor do they reflect the Globe’s views on any subject area.

A top lawmaker in Vermont says the Legislature will reconsider a bill to legalize marijuana sales later this year, though she feels lawmakers and the administration are appropriately focused on responding to the coronavirus pandemic for now.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson was pressed Thursday about why state leaders aren’t giving more attention to the pending tax-and-regulate legislation given the revenue the state could derive and the jobs that could be created from legal cannabis sales.

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The speaker told Vermont Public Radio that after both chambers approved a bill to provide for retail sales this session, one of her last acts before leaving the State House to work remotely was appointing members of a conference committee to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions. That said, “our attention, I believe rightly, has been entirely on the COVID crisis and making sure that we get Vermonters through this very intense desperate period,” she stated.

“This issue is still before us. We will be talking about it before the year ends,” Johnson said of the marijuana bill. “But I think our energy has been where it needs to be, which is getting Vermonters through this crisis.”

Vermont legalized the possession and cultivation of marijuana through the Legislature in 2018, but the current law does not include a sales component.

The speaker added that while she appreciated the argument that creating a commercial cannabis market could produce revenue and jobs for the state, the costs of implementing the program and the amount of time it would take to roll out a legal sales system would mean Vermont stands to lose money and add to the deficit for the first three years after legalization’s enactment.

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“It requires an awful lot of energy and attention from the administration, and they’re a little busy right now with their focus on the places that it needs to be in getting us through this crisis,” she said. “There are a lot of different bills that the Legislature has put a lot of hard work into, and we will slowly be getting back to those bills as we move through this phase and our economy begins to open up. We’ll get around to discussing it, but we’re focused where we need to be for Vermonters at the moment.”

After addressing urgent matters including COVID-19 and budgetary issues in the short-term, lawmakers plan to reconvene in August to tackle other pending legislation.

David Silberman, an attorney and pro bono drug policy reform advocate who asked the radio question that Johnson responded to, told Marijuana Moment that the speaker is correct that the legislation “does envision a slow multi-year rollout for Vermont’s regulated market.”

However, “this is a choice the Legislature can and should revisit,” he said. “In light of the pressing need to replace jobs and revenues lost to COVID, the conference committee should take a look at the Nevada model, and roll out a system of emergency regulations that would get storefront adult-use sales started by fall, and give our existing base of growers a legal alternative to their current market.”

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Nevada began recreational marijuana sales on an expedited basis in July 2017, less than a year after voters approved legalization the prior November.

The Vermont conference committee, which as been appointed but has not met yet, is one of the last steps needed to enact a tax-and-regulate system in the state. The Senate approved S. 54 with a veto-proof majority last year during the first half of the two-year legislative session. The House voted in favor of its version of the legislation in February.

Governor Phil Scott, who reluctantly signed the earlier noncommercial legalization bill into law, has voiced concerns about adding legal sales to the mix. In particular, he is worried about road safety issues. That said, top lawmakers and an administration official indicated earlier this year that the governor is “at the table” in discussions about the current legislation and would be open to using cannabis tax revenue to fund an after-school program he’s pushing.

Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said he hopes lawmakers get back to considering the legislation in the coming months.

“There’s no question that S. 54 would create jobs, produce tax revenue and be beneficial for Vermont’s economy,” he said. “The legislature should make this bill a priority later in the summer, and Gov. Scott should agree to support it.”

While the COVID-19 outbreak has forced numerous legislative drug policy reform efforts to stall out, there is activity in certain jurisdictions.

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A Louisiana House committee approved bills to expand the state’s medical cannabis program and provide for marijuana deliveries last week. A top Minnesota legislator unveiled a much-anticipated cannabis legalization bill, as well. Missouri lawmakers rejected an amendment a lawmaker filed in jest to a health care bill that would have required members to consume a “significant” amount of marijuana before legislating.

Read the story on Marijuana Moment.